What did Booker T. Washington mean when he said "it is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities."
This quote is taken from Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Exposition Address.” This was a speech that he, as a leading black educator, was invited to give in 1895. The audience was largely white. In this speech, Washington is encouraging blacks and whites in the South to “cast down your buckets where you are.” He wants the white people to hire black people instead of trying to attract immigrants or others to work in the South. He wants black people to be willing to work doing manual labor in the South. He doesn’t want them to think that this kind of work is demeaning.
The passage that you quote is addressed to the African Americans. Washington is saying that blacks should realize that it is natural for them to be largely confined to menial work. This is what he means when he says that they have to begin at the bottom in life. Washington also realizes that many African Americans will feel angry at whites. They will remember slavery and they will know that the whites have kept oppressing them since slavery ended. He is encouraging them to get over it. He is telling them not to let their anger (their grievances) prevent them from working for the white people (opportunities).
So, Washington is telling black people to accept their place in life (everyone has to start at the bottom) and to take the opportunities presented to them, even if it means working for the white people.